Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Ecclesiology

THE HOUSEHOLD OF GOD

 

The apostle Paul found himself in a unique position in the history of redemption. Originally a devout Jew, trained as a rabbi, he converted to Christianity and became “the apostle to the Gentiles.” He spent his ministry travelling through the Graeco-Roman world preaching the message of salvation far and wide. And people from every conceivable background responded. Churches were established throughout Asia Minor and Greece.

This was revolutionary. Up until this point Christianity had been largely a Jewish phenomenon. Christianity was an offshoot from Judaism. But now Gentiles were flocking into the church, and this created a theological problem. What was the relationship of these Gentile converts to Judaism? Should they become Jewish proselytes, get circumcised, and keep the Jewish Law? Or did they occupy a different place in the overall scheme of things. And Paul, the Jewish rabbi turned Christian missionary, found himself right in the very center of the controversy.

But for Paul it was more than just an abstract, theoretical problem. It was an intensely practical one as well. He had established churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece. These churches contained believers who came from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. But how were they to get along together? They had practically nothing in common. The Jews were used to living a very moral life, bound by strict rules and regulations. The Gentiles were used to wine, women and song. How, then, would believers from these two very different backgrounds to get along with each other in church?

Thus it was in this context that Paul wrote his epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. And while these two letters are very similar to each other, they are also noticeably different. Ephesians is apparently aimed at a predominately Gentile audience, while Colossians appears to have been addressed to believers from a Jewish background.

And thus Paul, in Eph. 2:11-3:13, comes to reflect on the Gentiles in God’s overall plan. And in the process he describes for us the nature of the universal church, which he calls “the household of God.”

Paul notes that the Gentiles, in their former life, were “without Christ, being aliens from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12; NKJV). “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). Paul goes on to explain that Christ, through His death on the cross, brought salvation to both Jews and Gentiles.

But now what? “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God’ (v. 19). Here Paul uses two metaphors to describe the position of believers in Christ: he says that we are “fellow citizens” and “members of the household of God.” “Fellow citizens” suggests that Christians are all members of a common political entity, with all the rights and privileges thereof, as we would say. “Members of the household of God” means that we are all part of a common household headed by God Himself.

But Paul goes on to elaborate. This “household,” to change the imagery a bit, has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (v. 20). The church, the universal church, was founded by Christ Himself; at first through His own earthly ministry, and then through the apostles and prophets of the First Century church. And what happens since then is that in Him “the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). The church is “fitted together,” it is a coherent whole. Moreover, it is “a holy temple in the Lord.” The imagery would have been unmistakable for a First Century Christian, especially for one from a Jewish background. A temple was a sacred building, a building in which the divine presence resided. And thus God is pictured as being personally present among His people. The church is not just a human social organization; rather, it is characterized by the very presence of God Himself.

Thus it becomes apparent that what Paul is describing here is the universal church, the sum total of all Christian believers throughout history, from the time of Christ until now.

Thus Paul brings it all home to the specific church in Ephesus: “in Whom you also are being build together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v. 22). The church at Ephesus was a local expression of the universal church. Each local church is “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” It is not a mere social club; it is the communion of the saints built around the presence of God Himself. And specifically, this communion is realized “in the Spirit.” It is specifically the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, who is a t work in the church creating the spiritual life. At the practical level it is the Holy Spirit who creates the church and makes its ministries effective.

Because the church is based on union with Christ two logical corollaries follow: 1) True believers who are united to Christ are united to each other by virtue of their common bond with the Savior, and 2) anyone who is not united with Christ is not a part of the universal church, and therefore there can be no thought of “fellowship” between believers and unbelievers. In other words, evangelical Christians should be united with each other and separate from the world, including apostate liberal denominations.

Unfortunately two dangerous and opposing tendencies have made themselves felt in the modern evangelical community. The first is a spirit of accommodation which manifests itself in the misguided notion that the way to win others to Christ is to make ourselves look like the world. This was seen in the Neo-evangelical movement of the 1940’s and then in the “Young Evangelicals” and more recently in the “Emerging Church.”

But then there is the opposite tendency as well, manifested in self-described fundamentalist churches that practice “Second Degree” separation. That is, they separate not just from unbelievers but from fellow believers whom they deem to be in error over one doctrine or practice or another. Thus they refuse to have fellowship with other Bible-believing Christians because they use the wrong translation of the Bible or the wrong kind of music in worship. The result is endless divisions within the professing church, and this hardly glorifies Christ at all.

What we need to do is to focus on our relationship with Christ, and as we do so we will draw closer together with each other and farther apart from the world. And then the church will start to look like it should be.

GROWING UP FUNDY

Review:

Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith

Robb Ryerse

Civitas Press, 2012

206 pp., pb.

What is it like growing up in a Fundamentalist home? Are there any alternatives to Fundamentalism? Is it possible to leave Fundamentalism and still be a Christian? Pastor Robb Ryerse explores these questions and gives us some intriguing answers in his book Fundamorphoses: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith.

As it turns out Pastor Ryerse and myself have quite a bit in common. We were both raised in churches that were affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). We both lived, at least for a while, in Upstate New York – he near Utica and I near Syracuse. We both studied, at least for a time, at Baptist Bible College of Pennsylvania, where we both had the privilege of sitting at the feet of the school’s beloved history professor, Dr. Rembert Byrd Carter, or “Doc Carter” as he was affectionately known. We both went on to study at seminaries connected with the Reformed tradition – he at Biblical and I at Westminster. But then our paths diverged.

Pastor Ryerse went on to pastor some Fundamentalist Baptist churches, but became increasingly frustrated with what he found in them and with the whole Fundamentalist movement in general. He eventually left the GARBC to become involved with the “emerging church” movement. I, on the other hand, never went into the formal ministry, but was involved in a lay capacity in a wide variety of churches – Reformed Episcopal, Primitive Baptist, Mennonite, Plymouth brethren, and Reformed Presbyterian. Theologically I moved in the opposite direction from Pastor Ryerse – I looked to the past for answers – to the Puritans and Reformers – and basically became a Reformed Baptist. I am currently part of an informal house church group. Musically I could do without the guitars and drums – give me the old time shaped-note hymns from The Sacred Harp in four part a cappella harmony. And so, having both left the GARBC, Pastor Ryerse and myself have very different perspectives on life.

Pastor Ryerse’s book is part spiritual autobiography and part treatise on Systematic Theology. He tries to be charitable in describing Fundamentalists, but it is clear that he has major problems with the movement. He describes how Fundamentalism didn’t meet his needs, and explains why he is on a path that he thinks will be more rewarding.

Scripture

So what exactly does Pastor Ryerse think is wrong with Fundamentalism? He has a host of familiar complaints – its narrow-mindedness, its judgmentalism, at times its outright hypocrisy. What is striking, however, is his diagnosis of these ills. He basically criticizes Fundamentalists for taking the Bible too seriously, or at least too literally. He tells us that “Emanating directly from their strict interpretations and applications of the Bible, Christian fundamentalists in America have built a rigid superstructure of legalistic tradition that defines their church and home cultures” (p. 21). He then goes on to assert that “Certitude produces legalism,” and “legalism produces judgmentalism” (Ibid.).

His solution is to argue that the Bible is just one of several sources from which we draw our theology. In particular throughout his book Pastor Ryerse measures doctrine by his own experience. “Theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts, and lives of people who are asking the big questions and seeking answers that resonate,” he says (p. 106).

However, the idea that Scripture should be our only rule of faith and practice did not originate with American Fundamentalists in the 20th Century. What Pastor Ryerse is arguing against is nothing less than the Reformation principle of “sola Scriptura,” and long before the GARBC came into existence orthodox Lutheran and Reformed theologians insisted on the same principle. On this point Fundamentalists are simply following the historic Protestant approach to Scripture.

While I would personally hesitate to say that the “autographs” are “inerrant,” we must nevertheless come to terms with the claims that the Bible makes for itself. “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21; NKJV). If this claim can be taken at face value, then the Bible is, in fact, the inspired Word of God, God’s own revelation to us, and is fully authoritative in all that it teaches. Our role, then, is to submit to its authority, not bend it to fit our own desires.

The problem is that by subjecting Scripture to the test of experience we wind up making our theology conform to our lives instead of making our lives conform to what God has revealed. At the bottom of it we are either pursuing God’s will or we are following our own. And the latter is nothing less than self-delusion.

If Fundamentalist doctrine and practice is shallow and superficial, might not the problem be a failure to take Scripture seriously enough?

The fact of the matter is that virtually the only way we can know about God and salvation is through divine revelation. God must tell us what is true about these things – about the origin, purpose and meaning of life, about what happens after death – we have no other path to knowledge about these things. If God has not spoken then we are in ignorance. Thus any theology not based on sound exegesis is a delusion.

Salvation

Likewise Pastor Ryerse’s view of salvation is problematical. He describes the Fundamentalist view of salvation this way: “For someone to ‘get saved,’ they had to believe a certain set of propositions about Jesus. If a person confessed to having these beliefs, we were willing to give her assurance of her standing before God and eternity in heaven” (p. 69). In other words, in this view “faith” is merely mental assent.

Pastor Ryerse’s own view of salvation is that “The real power of faith is not in leading us to a climactic moment of conversion but in shaping the entirety of our lives. The point of our belief is not punching our ticket to heaven but in growing us and growing with us throughout our lives” (p. 70).

The problem here is that he doesn’t distinguish between justification and sanctification. Justification is an act by which we are declared righteous in the sight of God; it takes place instantaneously. Sanctification is a process that begins at conversion and gradually changes us over time. It lasts throughout our pilgrimage here on earth.

It is easy to see how a person raised in a Christian home could be confused on this point. Young children are often encouraged to make professions of faith before they are old enough to understand the basic concepts of sin and redemption. Some churches are reluctant to talk about sin and repentance, which means that their congregations rarely if ever hear convicting sermons. And in the GARBC the situation is further by the fact that sanctification is often described as “personal separation,” as if the Christian life boiled down to little more than “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew; and I don’t go with girls that do.” Thus it is relatively easy for a young person growing up in a Christian home to think that because he is doing all the right things outwardly he must be genuinely a Christian.

The situation is even further complicated by the fact that the pastors themselves often show little understanding of what the new birth is. Thus they will often accept a candidate for baptism and church membership on a bare profession of faith with little or no evidence of regeneration. Then everyone in the church, including the candidate himself, assumes that he is a genuine believer.

What is missing in this scenario is any conviction of sin. What we forget is that God looks on the heart. No matter how righteous and upright a person may seem outwardly, he still is a human being with a sin nature. What we human observers see is a well-behaved youngster who is active in his church and Christian school. What God sees is a heart filled with pride, anger, selfishness, lust and greed. God knows what we are really like inside, and if the motive is present, even when the outward action is not, we are still guilty in the sight of God. What God wants to see is a pure heart, not a proud hypocrite. And here we all fail, no matter how righteous we may appear to be outwardly.

True conversion, then, begins with the conviction of sin. This is not to say that a person must weep over his sins for at least a half an hour before he can pray and ask for forgiveness. Personalities and circumstances differ. But in order for true conversion to take place there must be a clear understanding of the real issue: our sin and guilt before a holy God whose law we have broken and whose justice we have offended.

By the same token true saving faith is not just assent to a set of propositions; it is an act of the will in which we place our trust in Christ as our Savior. We do not just believe things about Christ; we believe in Christ; we place our trust in Him. We rely on Him for salvation. Faith acts on the promises of God’s Word. Faith obeys. Hebrews 11 is the great roll call of faith.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

What is strikingly absent in Pastor Ryerse’s account of the Christian life is the role of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, many fundamentalist Baptist churches have so reacted against Pentacostalism that they hesitate even to mention the Holy Spirit for fear of sounding like “holy rollers.” And in those churches more inclined toward an Arminian theology there is a tendency to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. And yet the New Testament makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the agent of the new birth, and it is the Holy Spirit who creates the spiritual life of the church and makes its ministries effective. Paul could say, “And my speech and my preaching were not with permissive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Cor. 2:4). Without the Holy Spirit the church is just plain dead.

The new birth itself is a deep, inward change produced by the Holy Spirit. In the case of a person raised in a Christian home there might not be a dramatic outward change. Such a person will continue to be the same outwardly moral and upright person that he always has been. The real change takes place inwardly. The newly regenerated Christian has a new understanding, and new interests and desires. He is conscious of a new relationship with God. He has a prayer life, and he delights to feed upon God’s Word.

It is here that many nominal Christians raised in Christian homes have difficulty. They go through life simply reacting to the opinions of others. It is all a matter of external pressure. But to really know God in a personal, intimate way is liberating. God’s opinion is the only one that matters. Everyone else’s opinion is only secondary. As someone once put it, “the fear of God is the fear that drives away all other fear.” It was this fear of God that prompted Martin Luther to stand before the Emperor and all the assembled nobles of the Holy Roman Empire and declare, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” If we are feeding on God’s Word, if we are spending time with Him in prayer, if we are growing ever closer to Him, the opinions of men simply do not matter. The only question is, what does God think? If I am truly born again, if I have genuine spiritual life within me, it is no longer a matter of trying to please others and live up to their expectations. My aim is to please God and I don’t need any external prompting.

The difference can be illustrated by the life of Paul. In a sense we could say that Paul had a “Fundamentalist” upbringing, if we could use that term in a Jewish context. He was a devout Jew – “circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6). He even had the added advantage of theological training under one of the leading rabbis of his day. But in the end it was of no avail. In a fascinating piece of psychological introspection he describes his inner conflict in Romans chapter 7. Intellectually he had a high regard for Scripture. He could see that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). But he also saw something else at work inside of himself – something dark and sinister. For all of his outward righteousness he was still a human being, born with a sin nature that led him in the complete opposite direction. This created a strange paradox in his psychology. “For what I am doing I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (v. 15; cf. v. 19). “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23). And this led to his anguished cry in verse 24: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”   Is it not fair to say that this describes the experience of many today who were raised in Christian homes?

Parmigianino, ca. 1530

The Conversion of Paul

The answer to the question is found in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). What makes the difference in the life a person who has genuinely been born again is the Holy Spirit, and Paul describes the work of the Spirit at length in chapter 8. The Spirit gives life (vv. 4-11), the assurance of salvation (vv. 14-17), hope (vv. 23-25), and intercession (vv. 26,27). And thus Paul concludes the chapter on a triumphant note: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v. 37). What makes the difference between chapter 7 and chapter 8? The presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer! Is that not what we are missing in our churches today? And Paul is very blunt about the matter: “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:9b). Where does that leave us?

The Church

Which brings us to the subject of the church. In the last chapter of his book Pastor Ryerse describes the type of “emerging church” his is planting in Arkansas. He criticizes traditional churches for putting “belief and behavior ahead of belonging” (p. 202). Candidates for membership have to believe a certain way and behave a certain way in order to belong. At his new church, however, Pastor Ryerse says that “For us, it’s not about who is in and who is out. We see ourselves as a community of people on a journey, trying our best to follow Jesus together. We want to affirm anyone who is on that path, regardless of how far down the trail he or she may be’ (p. 203).

It is a little hard to see how anyone who has sat in Doc Carter’s classes could say such a thing. For Doc Carter, beyond anyone else, was quick to point out that a Baptist church, indeed a New Testament church, should be a believers’ church with a regenerate church membership. And this is important, not just because it is a Baptist distinctive, but because it is the only way that a church can manifest life in Christ to the surrounding community. It is the only way that a church can even begin to function the way a church is supposed to. The operative principle is that each individual member of the church is supposed to be vitally connected to Christ through the indwelling Spirit. The church is supposed to be a spiritual fellowship, the communion of the saints, drawn together by a common love for Christ and for each other. This is why Baptist churches traditionally have had church covenants – you were making a formal commitment to your fellow believers to live the Christian life and to function together as a spiritual body.

Is not our problem today that our churches are not very spiritual? For the most part they have become social clubs, with the paid, professional pastor acting as CEO and master of ceremonies. You can get 90% of the congregation out for a “fellowship” dinner, but scarcely 10% out for prayer meeting. Since when did casseroles become more important than prayer? Is Christ present in our gatherings?

Conclusion

What is largely missing in Pastor Ryerse’s book is any sense of the holiness of God, of the sinfulness of man, of the need for repentance, and of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. Pastor Ryerse seems instead to take a sociological approach to religion. Fundamentalism is a subculture that makes certain demands on its members. But for Pastor Ryerse it was all external pressure – he didn’t feel anything within. At one point he says that “many of us have wondered why some biblical writers speak of God’s presence being so close and near to them while our own experiences have been of a God who is far away” (p. 102). At another point he admitted, “I’m not very good at praying . . . I’ve just never been able to develop prayer as a consistent discipline in my life” (p. 189). In short, what we seem to have here is the psychology of an unconverted person, caught up in a religious milieu but lacking any direct experience with God personally. And thus it was only a matter of time before he would try to redefine his faith to correspond with how he actually felt within.

But in the end as human beings we all have to deal with God as He actually is. In one sense Pastor Ryerse is certainly correct when he says that “theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts and lives of people who are asking the big questions.” That is, in fact, exactly what most of the great preachers and writers down through the centuries did, from John Bunyan to Martyn Lloyd-Jones – most of them had no academic training in theology at all, but they concentrated on asking the big questions, and tried to understand how the answers applied to life. This is what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” or experiential theology as we might say today, if we could even conceive of such a thing. Pastor Ryerse’s problem is that he is “seeking answers that resonate” with him personally. Rather the great preachers and writers of the past went to Scripture for the answers. (And Moses, Jesus and Paul were no ivory tower armchair theologians!). And that is what we must do. We must go to the Bible and try to interpret it honestly and humbly, allowing ourselves to be taught by God’s Word. We must learn to apply it to our lives. Simply to base our theology on our own feelings and experiences is to lead ourselves astray. We cannot afford to go through life making up things about God because they make us feel good. For this reason I am afraid that Pastor Ryerse’s solution to the problem of Fundamenealism is probably a dead end.

THE ROLE OF HUMAN TEACHERS IN THE CHURCH

 

There is no question that modern American Evangelicalism is in theological disarray. As the surrounding culture becomes increasingly secularized and materialistic, leaders within the professing church have been driven to increasingly desperate measures to attract numbers. In recent decades we have the rise of the Prosperity Gospel, Young Evangelicals, the Church Growth Movement, and the Emerging Church, not to mention Contemporary Christian Music. Standard formulations of doctrine are being increasingly questioned. These developments have left some in the pews wondering if there are any biblically sound churches left at all. Has the whole church gone apostate? Have all of our pastors and theologians become false teachers?

There is a sense in which the answer is “yes,” or nearly yes. What has happened in American Evangelicalism is that we have come to rely too heavily on human institutions. In particular, the advent of seminaries and Bible colleges have dramatically altered the quality of the spiritual life within the churches. Young men decide on their own to pursue ministry as a career. They enroll in an academic institution where they receive classroom instruction from professional theologians (not the way Christ trained His disciples!). They pass the exams and receive their diplomas. The churches then assume that the candidates are qualified for the ministry. Once hired the pastor functions like the CEO of a company, or the master of ceremonies at the social club. His performance is then measured by such metrics as church attendance and the size of the budget.

What is missing from this whole scenario is God Himself. Throughout the whole process no one asks the fundamental question, has this person been called by God? Does he have the necessary spiritual maturity and gifts? And what typically happens, in the best of cases, is that the pastor may have a fairly good theoretical knowledge of the truth, but lacks a grasp of the practical reality of it – what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” the understanding of how God works in the lives of individuals. As a result the pastor’s sermons are typically marked by poor exegesis, a flat delivery, and little or no practical application. Is it any wonder that so many church members choose to stay home on Sunday evenings?

Furthermore, given the longstanding differences of opinion over theological issues one is tempted to wonder if the theologians themselves know what they are talking about. Obviously at least some of them have to be wrong. If they are all following what the Bible says, why don’t they agree with each other?

Moreover as we read through church history it become apparent that the great leaders of the past were often flawed characters. They were limited in their understanding and influenced by their times and circumstances. The divisions and failures of the present are often the result of bad decisions made in the past.

This, then, raises a pertinent question: why follow human teachers at all? If the Bible is our only authority, why not simply read our Bibles and ignore the opinions of men? Who needs human teachers if they are fallible?

The Bible itself, however, makes it clear that the church is a God-ordained institution, and that Christ, who is the Head of the church, has given it “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11; NKJV). And why has he given these gifts to the church? They are “. . . for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (v. 12).   For better or for worse, God has chosen to use fallible human beings, namely us, to accomplish His work here on earth.

Does that mean that we should blindly follow every self-appointed teacher who comes down the pike? By no means! But how do we tell the imposters apart from the real thing?

First of all, a man truly called of God will meet the biblical qualifications for the eldership as outlined in passages such as I Tim. 3:1-7 and Tit. 1:5-9. “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop must be . . .” (I Tim. 3:1,2).

Second of all, what he teaches must be in accord with Scripture. The preacher is not at liberty to share his own thoughts about current events, much less to make up his own theology and peddle it as the Word of God. He is to preach God’s Word, not man’s. Paul could tell Timothy, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me” (II Tim. 1:13). And the only way that we can know what “the pattern of sound words” which came from the apostles is, is through their writings which we have in the New Testament. That means that the preacher’s primary task is to expound Scripture, and most sermons should be expository.     Moreover a sermon should be edifying. Teachers are not to “give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith” (I Tim. 1:4). Paul then goes on to explain: “Now the purpose of this commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith . . .” (v.5). The aim is to challenge the lost to be saved, and children of God to grow in their walk with the Lord.

When the preacher enters the pulpit he should have two primary aims: 1) explain to the congregation what the text means, and 2) show how it applies to them. And if the sermon was successful the congregation should leave the building different from what is was when it entered. They should feel that they had been in the very presence of God Himself. (J.I. Packer once said in an interview that when Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached he brought God into the pulpit with him! Dr. Lloyd-Jones, it should be noted, never attended seminary. His degree was in medicine.)

We must follow no man blindly. Ultimately we are all accountable to God for what He has revealed to us in His Word. And yet we must recognize and honor those whom God has sent to teach us. “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17). Our only aim, then, is to come to a better understanding of God’s Word. The great theologians of the past are worth reading provided that they genuinely know God themselves, were competent in their respective fields of study, and made it their conscious aim to unfold the meaning of Scripture. John Calvin put it like this: “Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture” (Institutes, I.vi.2 – McNeill ed., p. 72). The question is not, is the preacher / teacher perfect in every way? No one is, and to require that would be to disqualify the entire ministry. The question is, does he lead a godly life? Is he a man of prayer? Is he free from the love of money and worldly ambition? Is he consciously trying to follow what the Bible says? As A.W. Tozer put it, “Listen to the man who listens to God.”

It might be added that the modern church is so degenerate that, as a general rule, the better writers are the older ones – the Reformers, the Puritans, the Old Princeton theologians. Read the Puritans to get your heart warmed!

For the J.I. Packer interview click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpDYqVZhzI8

AN INCOMPLETE REFORMATION

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

 

Eph. 4:1-16 provides us with the biblical theory behind the church. The church is a mystical body, bound together by the shared presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through spiritual gifts that are distributed throughout the body. The purpose of these gifts is “the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry” (v. 12; NKJV). The church is to grow thereby into a state of spiritual maturity, which, in turn, results in “the unity of the faith . . . and the knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13). Through it all the entire church draws its strength from its union with Christ, who is the Head. The result is that every part does its share, and “causes the growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v. 16).

And yet we don’t often see the church today functioning that way. Why? The story is a long one, and it goes back close to the very beginning. As early as the Second Century we begin to see the emergence of what is sometimes called “Early Catholicism.” This was marked by two innovations: a monarchical episcopate and infant baptism.

In the New Testament the office of bishop and elder were considered the same – the two terms were used interchangeably (e.g., Tit. 1:5 & 7) – and the church was led by a board of elders or “presbytery” (I Tim. 4:14) chosen from within the congregation. But by the Second Century we begin to see the bishop emerging as the single, preeminent leader of the congregation, with the elders below him. Thus Ignatius of Antioch could write to the Church of Ephesus in 108 A.D., and urge them to “be joined together in one subjection, subject to the bishop and to the presbytery . . . “ (Eph. II.2).

Infant baptism apparently came later, but it was attested as early as the time of Tertullian (ca. 200 A.D.). The problem here is that infant baptism shifts the focus away from the faith of the person being baptized to the church’s sacraments as a conduit of grace.

The situation was further complicated when Constantine, who was sympathetic to Christianity, became sole emperor in 323 A.D. Thereafter the Roman government supported the church, but this was a mixed blessing, for it also meant that the government would meddle in the church’s affairs. The emperors were often more interested in political harmony than in doctrinal purity, and the effect on the church was not always salutary.

And thus, gradually, down through the Middle Ages the pure gospel of salvation by grace through faith was buried under layers of tradition, scholastic philosophy and canon law. And this was the situation that faced Martin Luther in 1517 when he published his famous Ninety-five Theses. A gifted biblical scholar, he could see how far the Catholic Church has strayed from the practice of the New Testament Church. His writings caused a sensation and he soon found himself at the center of controversy. The great question of the hour was what to do about all of the abuses that had corrupted and deformed the church.

Luther was by no means alone in this situation. In Switzerland Ulrich Zwingli found himself in pretty much the same position. Both men, however, had the support of their respective local civil magistrates. But, as in the days of Constantine, this was a mixed blessing. Biblical scholars like Luther and Zwingli could see what was taught and practiced in the New Testament church; the civil magistrates, on the other hand, were concerned to maintain public order. Luther, quite plausibly, advocated a cautious approach to reform. Arguing from the New Testament principle of Christian liberty he advocated changing only what was necessary, and leaving the rest alone. Zwingli’s attitude, however, is harder to justify. From the pulpit he had advocated a thorough-going, Bible-based reform. In actual practice, however, he deferred to the City Council of Zurich. It is hard to clear him of the charge of political opportunism.

What both Luther and Zwingli were attempting to do, in effect, was to take existing territorial state churches and “reform” them by introducing certain changes to make them look more biblical. It was hard for them to do otherwise. Were it not for the support of the magistrates they could have literally paid with their lives for the doctrines they were teaching. The whole social order of Western Europe was based on the idea of “Corpus Christianum,” the idea that all of Western society constituted “Christendom.” But an all-inclusive state church can never be anything more than a pale shadow of what a genuine Christian church ought to be. The church is supposed to be a “communion of the saints,” a spiritual fellowship of committed believers who demonstrate the life of Christ in their love toward one another. A state church leads to mere formalism.

Some of Zwingli’s more radical followers saw the nature of the problem, and formed the nucleus of what became the Anabaptist movement, which, among other things, rejected the idea of infant baptism. For Luther and Zwingli, however, this was too much. It threatened to undermine the whole structure of Western society, and they were both patriots at heart!

What we are left with, then, in the cases of the Lutheran and Reformed (and Anglican) churches is an incomplete Reformation. The Reformers recovered the gospel of salvation by grace, but failed to achieve a biblical church life. The Anabaptists attempted a more thorough-going reform, and since that time there have been other attempts to create a more biblical and more spiritual form of church life – everything from the 17th Century Baptists and Quakers to a variety of 19th Century “Restorationist” movements. But these various “Free Church” movements have been marred by divisiveness and sometimes unsound doctrine, and even the ones that started fairly well over time tended to lapse into the same kind of institutionalism and dead formalism that has plagued their state church brethren. Nearly all American churches today have grown accustomed to relying on human means to achieve spiritual ends, and the life of the Spirit is notably absent. Hardly anything existing today can be said to resemble the spiritual life of the First Century church.

We are deeply indebted to Luther and Zwingli, Calvin and Knox, for rediscovering the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, and for making God’s Word, the Bible, available to the common man. If it had not been for them, humanly speaking, we would still be in spiritual darkness. But in our admiration for their achievements we must not overlook the fact that their efforts at reforming the church ultimately fell short of what God requires. And it must be our ever-present task to construct a church that genuinely reflects God’s will – a believers’ church, a spiritual fellowship, a church that shows by deed as well as by word what salvation means in actual practice. We need to look past the highly institutionalized form of church life that we know today to see the true and living God seated upon His throne in heaven. What we need is what some of our forefathers knew as revival – not glib preacher or TV huckster, but a real outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will humble us before the glory and majesty of God, fill our hearts with love, and anoint our verbal testimony with power. May God grant us the grace to live up to His expectations!